The way print and broadcast journalists handle police news tells more about them and the organizations they represent than almost anything else. So much needs to be known and the possibilities of mistakes are so great that each story is potentially troublesome.
Often beginning reporters are given the responsibility for reporting crime news. This helps them develop an understanding about how one important part of the news business works. On the other hand, danger lurks in every story. Experienced and knowledgeable editors must be in place to ensure that everything turns out okay.
Young reporters assigned to cover police and crime news must learn quickly. Many times the reporting is done under the worst possible circumstances. Often the reporting is done on deadline. No second chances are allowed. Mistakes can be costly and can be embarrassing. Lack of care could result in legal and ethical problems with corresponding consequences for the reporter and the newspaper, radio or television station or wire service.
Here’s a truism about police news: No story can be handled too carefully. The public assumes that the news media will get things right. No exceptions are allowed. In no area of the news are the risks greater than in covering crime and police news.
Reporting on crime is not simple, and if anything the reporting is becoming more complicated as the years go by. Often information is not easy to acquire. Many times the police do not or are not able to provide all the information a reporter would like. Witnesses can be helpful, but they may not be all that trustworthy.
The watchwords are accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. Thoroughness too. The reporter must not stop too soon. Caution and skepticism must be forever in the forefront.
Sometimes questions are not so much legal as ethical. Often reputations are in the hands of reporters and editors. Unnecessary damage or harm may come to those involved in crime news—suspects and victims alike.
Much of reporting is based on attitude and habit. Bad habits are easily formed; good habits are more difficult. Good habits are formed by people with good attitudes who are well trained and who work to keep themselves informed. The reverse is true. The same can be said for editing, which is a key step in the processing of police news.
As a beginning point, here are some general observations:
First, reporters and editors should not pretend to be experts when they are not. No one has all the answers and no one should be expected to. Journalists should not pretend to know if they do not. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. Intelligent reporters and editors will rely upon people who can help. Sometimes this is another journalist. But lawyers and officials involved in law enforcement are also available to clear up points at issue.
Second, reporters and editors should never assume anything. Unless a fact can be verified, reporters should not guess at it. They should not presume to know what might be the case. Someone should be sought out who can provide authoritative information. Then that information must be evaluated. In this regard, keep in mind that reporters should not assume that they can use information with impunity just because someone told them what happened or what was said. Other reporters can be wrong. Lawyers can be wrong. Law enforcement officers can be wrong. Even court officials can be wrong.
Third, reporters and editors should remember that the accused person is innocent under the law until proved guilty in court. The natural progression of the police story tends to weigh heavily against the accused. Fairness dictates careful handling of the accusations. Keep in mind that the news media are working for the public, not for the police. The reason for doing the police story is to inform the public.